Monthly Archives: April 2012

What Makes Teaching Music Worthwhile

Thomas J. West
I’ve been a public school teacher for 13 years, and 3 years before that, I served as an instructor on the staff of a community youth band. In that time, I have taught full-time in 4 school districts, taught in 2 different states, and taught part-time in an additional district. I also worked with that youth band for 10 years. I’ve taught in rural schools, high-achieving suburban schools, struggling metro schools, and with the youth band taught kids from all of these demographics. In all of those varied experiences, there is one great constant between all of them.

Fantastic human beings.

Music teachers get a special privilege that other subject area teachers often do not receive. We get to work with students over the long haul. I get to watch students come into my program in middle school and work with them directly as they grow up before my eyes. I get to have a small part in their long-term growth. And now, thanks to social media, I even get to see their milestones as young adults.

When I think of Muncy Junior/Senior High School, my first teaching job, I don’t think about what happened there, I think about Mary, Mark, Clayton, Alyson, Brianne, Becky, Kristi, and other students with whom I shared some great days in the band room and on a school bus.

When I think of Lindenwold High School in New Jersey, I think of Tyler, Mark, Matt, Andy, and others who played in Jazz Improvisation class and for a short time became LHS’s musical ambassadors.

And at my current school, I think of Paula, Sarah, Chloe, Julianna, Joy, Liz, Katia, Ben, and quite a few more memorable characters who help make the Center for Performing and Fine Arts the unique and special place that it is.

I pray that political bureaucracy doesn’t take away the opportunity for more young people to make a long-term relationship with their music teachers in the days to come. Public school music education is in danger in many states of being outsourced to private institutions or discontinued completely. It’s time for adults who value the experiences they had as a child in scholastic performing ensembles to speak to their elected representatives and insist on funding for public education.

It’s time for music educators to continue to uphold the traditions of our scholastic performing ensembles while taking a step into the future by giving students opportunities to become independent musicians capable of creating their own music rather than just play an ensemble part. Music education is marginalized in part because only our “best and brightest” (less than 1% of the total student population) go on to a lifelong active music performance or teaching adulthood.

Music-making has always been a social endeavor. People bond, grow, and build together by performing and creating music. I hope that all stakeholders in music education will not go quietly and allow music making to be cut from their communities.

Thanks goes to Thomas J. West Music for letting us use his blog!

Thomas J. West is an active music educator, composer, adjudicator, clinician, and award-winning blogger.

Not Your Grandfather’s Guitar Method

Sound Innovations for Guitar

Does the world really need another guitar method?

So, my first inclination when offered the opportunity to write Sound Innovations for Guitar was to step firmly and quickly backwards. I had already written two method series and my musical focus at the time was on recording, producing and performing. However, the prospect of doing something really special and unique was pretty enticing. The challenge was to write a method that would empower students and teachers to focus on building real world guitar skills and encourage the rewarding creative experiences that students are both seeking, and intuitively sense are the essence of the music experience. In fact, I think it is the lack of rewarding creative experiences that leads many students to be disappointed in traditional method book-centered guitar lessons.

I said yes, now what?

Virtually every guitar method, in fact virtually every instrument method in general, is centered on the same very linear, note-reading based approach to learning. How do we keep what is most valued from that type of well-established systematic approach while simultaneously breaking the mold to empower creative exploration? Well, the model for how to do this was right in front of us—it’s in how most of us really learn to play guitar in the first place: a friend showed us something we really had a desire to play; a teacher gave us some good advice; a book helped fill in some of the questions; we performed with or for a friend, loved it and then we proceeded on to another song, and another, and another. Linear, systemic logical methods have their strengths, but playing music is a non-linear, non-systemic creative activity that requires some freedom to blossom.

So let’s start at the bottom.

The key to playing guitar in virtually all styles and genres of popular music is chords and fundamental patterns. The great news is that all songs are built on very similar, if not the same, basic chord and pattern vocabularies. So as we learn to play one song we love, we lay the foundation for many others. By beginning on the low strings students are introduced to note reading in a logical, alphabetical sequence instead of the seemingly random and very confusing sequence taught when beginning on the high E string.

Beginning on low E encourages much better left and right hand technique. And best of all, it allows us to immediately and logically introduce chords right away, from their root tones on the low E and A strings.

What about some spice to bring the music to life?

Most methods wait many, many months before introducing eighth notes or sharps and flats. By introducing them early on, and combined with beginning on the low strings, students immediately start playing foundational blues-rock bass line riffs. The kinds of patterns they need as part of their basic vocabulary. Listen to virtually any Led Zeppelin song, or practically any great “guitar song” of any popular genre and you’ll notice many of the songs are based entirely on low bass-line type guitar riff patterns.

Let’s keep it creative and fun!

We don’t teach creativity, it’s in all of us, but we can encourage it and most important, let’s not to quash it! Too many “rules” block creative musical activities. Music is an experience and people can have the experience first and then later discuss and explore intellectually what it is they are experiencing. In fact, that is probably the most common, and natural, musical learning process. The old cliché that music is a language and that we learn language by listening and imitating, not by studying grammar, is profoundly true. It is very important to experience and explore music before we try and intellectualize it otherwise the learning process can become counter-productive and confusing. So here’s a fun idea that is stressed throughout the book. Guitarists and songwriters often take a standard open chord shape and move it to other locations on the neck exploring the interesting sounds it creates. Countless songs have been written in just that way. Students are encouraged from the very beginning to do just that in this book.

Drop and give me 20.

Exercises have their place, but music is not an exercise. The best advice I ever got was “Just find a song you want to play and work it till you sound great on it. Then find another.” Rather than isolate skills and techniques into technical exercises we’ve tried to present everything in the form of usable musical vocabulary (riffs, patterns, chords, rhythm techniques) and exciting repertoire, spanning traditional, rock, blues and classical music, that is rewarding, fun to perform, and lays a foundation for more songs to come. The idea is “play music to learn music.”

If you’d like to give the book a test run, you can request a free desk copy by visiting And we’d love to hear from you so, please feel free to leave questions/comments in the box below.


Aaron Stang

Musings of Master Music Teacher, Richard Wesp

Richard WespWe recently had the opportunity to interview Richard Wesp, an extremely popular choral director who spent 57 years teaching in the Forest Hills School District in Cincinnati, Ohio. Mr. Wesp is a recipient of both the Ohio MEA Distinguished Service Award and the CCM Distinguished Alumni Award. Having taught well over 10,000 students in his career before retiring in June 2011, he has had many opportunities to share his passion for music education with students, student teachers, and now, with other educators.

What is the value of music and arts education in the schools today and has it changed since you started in the classroom?
In the current trend of budget cutting, the arts remain an integral part of any complete education. Years ago, it may have just been a general feeling regarding how important the arts are, but now we have a large body of research that shows exactly how arts education positively impacts other subject areas.

What steps did you take to build a successful choral program?
Selecting quality repertoire is the most important part of teaching choral music. You have to take the time to find material that will work with each new group, year after year. What is the potential of each group (and student), and how will your choice of repertoire lift them to the next level? In general, students can master anything the teacher can master, so don’t be afraid to push and dream some. If I had paid attention to all those who said “high school students can’t sing that piece,” neither the students nor I would have grown nearly as much. Even if something never makes it to a ‘performance-ready’ level, just rehearsing a piece can be valuable and enlightening.

As a director, do you have any favorite styles of choral music?
I always felt I should work to expose my choirs to many different styles. And I’ve found that my favorite music has almost always been the music I was teaching at any given time. It’s always fun to see how students’ opinions change during the rehearsal process, eventually falling in love with music that they may not have liked when sight-reading it at the first rehearsal.

I also feel that it is important to pay attention to the lyrics in your repertoire. How many times will your students hear those words during the rehearsal process? Is it a message worth repeating?

Do you have any advice for those currently working to lift up students through music?
You must be passionate about your work. Your enthusiasm for sharing good choral music must be contagious, as must your own desire to never stop learning. Even now that I’m retired from the classroom, I still want to attend workshops and conferences to find new repertoire and learn new rehearsal techniques for my church choir. I’ve shared this formula with many student teachers: master teaching skills + passion = success.

Have your former students shared any insight on how the study of music impacted them?
At my retirement celebration, hundreds of former students wrote notes to me, sharing with me that they were listening to what I was saying, whether it was about the music itself or life in general. Many shared that the lessons learned in the classroom became much more meaningful after they had graduated. One former choral student that went on to work with Procter & Gamble told me that he was successful in his career because he learned a strong definition of excellence while singing in choir. Notes from students included: “Years later, I still remember that when you stop being better, you stop being good” and “I never told you while I was in school, but thirty years later, you should know that singing in the choir was the highlight of my day.”

Perhaps this note from well-known performer Vicki Lewis sums it up:
“The safe and nurturing environment you created made it possible to shine, to feel special, to be seen and heard. You generously gave the highest compliment you can pay an artist—rapt attention. It was with such kindness and grace and patience—so much patience—that you guided us, that you allowed us to follow muses . . . I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”

As a special tribute of thanks, the Anderson High School choirs (Forest Hills district) will be premiering Andy Beck’s new choral publication “Lift Me Up!“, dedicated to Richard Wesp, at their final choral concert this year.